The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Michael O’Sullivan’s review of “Dumbo,” click here.
Elephants are my fifth-favorite animal, after seals, sea lions, penguins and otters. So, given the pachydermic trauma featured in the 1941 “Dumbo,” it was with much trepidation that I saw the current one. My hesitance also came from this being a remake in an ocean of unnecessary remakes that will continue to wash over us, saturating our lives, brains and souls with unending waves of pointless cinema, made with money and resources that could be used to fund new and innovative films made by new and innovative filmmakers rather than funnel more money into the pockets of Mickey Mouse so he can Mouseke-build himself a new Mouseke-mansion or whatever.
Of course, through the course of the movie, Dumbo is sad — but he’s not the only one. Former trick rider Holt (Colin Farrell) has returned from World War I to the traveling circus that was his home, though now he’s missing his left arm. He’s also missing his wife, who died of the flu while he was gone. All that’s left are his children, Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins), who have seen more loss than little kids should.
Soon after Holt’s return, Mrs. Jumbo, the circus’ star elephant, gives birth to a large-eared calf; after an accident, the two elephants are separated. The kids discover Dumbo can fly, making him an attraction so attractive that V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton, dashing in silver hair and making some really weird vocal choices) comes to bring the circus to a permanent home at his Coney Island amusement park.
The sometimes-chaotic story inflation makes some sense; the original movie is only about an hour long, and audiences aren’t going to pony up $15 plus popcorn for that. The remake keeps some of the original elements — “Baby Mine” is still in there and still crushing — but it’s mostly its own movie, primarily because instead of taking place in the animal world, the action is more about the humans who surround Dumbo.
In the original “Dumbo,” the circus folk are largely in the background; here they step right into the spotlight (hehe, circus jokes). The children’s loss of their mother mirrors Dumbo’s loss of his own. Holt’s disability, like Dumbo’s ears, is marked as something shameful and marginalizing. It’s an interesting shift, because it clearly shows a variety of responses when humans face a vulnerable creature. Some befriend it. Some protect it. Some mock it. Some exploit it.
This “Dumbo” makes it so that loss and pain aren’t limited to a baby elephant with glossy eyes and killer lashes. It includes its audience — kids especially — in a more intimate way by including human characters that have real depth. (Well, kind of. Ehren Kruger’s script isn’t great. Also, director Tim Burton has dialed down the Tim Burton-ness of his visuals to the point of the film not being instantly recognizable as a Burton film. Whether that’s good or bad is up to you.)
“Dumbo” plainly shows kids the possible depths of human cruelty, callousness and materialism. But it also shows that pain is survivable and that heroes who are willing to stand up for the little guy surround them. In the 1941 movie, the heroes were talking mice, and crows that were basically codified racism in animated form. Here, kids can see that heroes can look just like us.
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